55 Astonishing Ansel Adams Photographs That Depict Nature, Life, And Social Justice In America

Published April 7, 2023
Updated October 25, 2023

Throughout the 20th century, Ansel Adams captured stunning black-and-white images of the American West, earning the title of "America's most important landscape photographer."

Snake River
Frozen Apple Tree
Grand Canyon
Canyon De Chelly
55 Astonishing Ansel Adams Photographs That Depict Nature, Life, And Social Justice In America
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For Ansel Adams, simplicity was everything. He applied that mindset to his photographs, which famously showed stunning natural vistas untouched by civilization. "A picture," he said, "is only a collection of brightness. There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept."

And Adams applied that mindset to his life, too. Alongside his photographs of American beauty, like Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, Adams also documented life at a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. These photos, like his nature shots, showed a clear and simple truth.

In the gallery above, look through 55 of Ansel Adams' most stunning photographs, from the cruel beauty of Death Valley and the magnificence of the Grand Canyon to the daily life of people at the Manzanar War Relocation Center. And below, learn how the famous photographer established his iconic style.

The Boy With The Crooked Nose

Born on Feb. 20, 1902, in San Francisco, California, Ansel Adams grew up in a once-prosperous family that had made its bygone fortune in timber. Shy, hyperactive, and with a crooked nose from taking a fall during the 1906 earthquake, Adams didn't fit in with others his age.

Instead, he drifted toward art and nature. As The Ansel Adams Gallery explains, Adams' first love was playing the piano. His second was the Yosemite Sierra, which Adams later said "colored and modulated [his life] by the great earth gesture." It was at Yosemite that Adams took his first photographs with a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie at the age of 14.

Half Dome

Ansel Adams/Public Domain"Monolith, the Face of Half Dome" is one of Adams' most famous photographs. Taken in 1927 at the beginning of his career, the brutally beautiful image captures a part of Yosemite that Adams had visited since boyhood.

There, amid the stunning peaks, Adams developed his love for photography, deepened his admiration for nature, and even met his wife. He joined the Sierra Club and started taking photos of club outings which, according to The Ansel Adams Gallery, gave him the idea that photography could be more than just a passion — it could be a profession.

In 1927, Adams got his first big break when he crossed paths with Albert M. Bender, an insurance magnate who became Adams' patron. The New York Times reports that Bender took Adams under his wing and introduced the budding photographer to artist friends like Georgia O'Keeffe.

Before long, Adams began to produce incredible images of American natural scenes. But not all of Ansel Adams' photographs would be of landscapes.

The Clarity Of Ansel Adams' Photography

Ansel Adams' photographs are stunning because of their simplicity — just as Adams wanted. He was a "straight photographer" in that he wielded the power of the camera and didn't tinker much with the end product.

As a result, Ansel Adams produced scores of photos that emphasize the bare, harsh, and always breathtaking beauty of the American West. His images of sites like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Glacier National Park present these stunning natural sites as majestic and almost holy.

But Adams' clarity wasn't reserved for photography. He also had a moral clarity, which he demonstrated in his photographs of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.

His photos captured the resilience of the people interned at Manzanar, many of whom were American citizens. They played football, published a newspaper, attended town hall meetings, and hung up the American flag.

Baseball Game At Manzanar

Ansel Adams/Library of CongressPeople interned at the Manzanar War Relocation Camp, many of whom were American citizens born in the United States, play a game of baseball.

For decades, the photos taken at Manzanar pleased no one. Adams' detractors called him a "Jap lover" and forced the early closure of an exhibition of the photos at the Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, some came to see Adams' internment camp images as government propaganda, since they showed the people at the camp as happy and well-adjusted.

But Adams himself said otherwise. Writing to the Library of Congress 20 years later, he noted: "The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and despair by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment."

Today, these Ansel Adams photographs clearly depict Adams' message — just as much as his photos of Yellowstone or Zion capture his love of nature.

Ansel Adams' Legacy Today

By the time Ansel Adams died in 1984 at the age of 82, he'd established himself as one of the best-known photographers in the United States. According to The New York Times, his work had been featured in more than 35 books and portfolios, as well as over 100 exhibitions. In 1989, he'd even been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

In addition to his photographic style, Adams is also remembered for his devotion to nature. Ansel Adams' photographs depict beautiful natural scenes, but they also capture his admiration and love for sites like Yosemite.

Ansel Adams

Barbara Alper/Getty ImagesAnsel Adams in 1983, the year before he died.

Similarly, Adams' compassion for people interned at Manzanar also appears in his photos of the internment camp. By capturing simple scenes of people playing games, tending shop, or hugging their children, he made the subtle but powerful point that the camps were an injustice.

As Adams said: "There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer." He poured himself into every shot.

After looking through these Ansel Adams photographs, enjoy these 99 colorized photos that breathe new life into the past. Or, peruse these photos of Native American life taken by photographer Edward Curtis.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.